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Book Review: The Great Courses by Robert Greenberg

The Great Courses of Robert Greenberg

 Reviewed by Noel Mawer, Book Review Editor


How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

How to Listen to and Understand Opera

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

Bach and the High Baroque


Robert Greenberg, a scholar, composer, and professor of music, has so far produced 26 audio courses for the Great Courses series, six of which I have acquired. Some people have it all: encyclopedic knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and a witty and entertaining teaching style. This is a very rare combination in the academic world, and these qualities explain professor Greenberg’s stunningly prolific production of these recorded courses. One would like to call him a “natural,” but, having spent my life in the academic world, I know that these qualities are hard won. They are the product of years of study and practice—a good deal of trial and error.

Prof. Greenberg’s enthusiasm is contagious, and after six of his courses I’m looking forward to the next six. As the above list indicates, Greenberg offers courses that include the expected survey (“How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is a survey of Western music from the ancient Greeks to the present day), as well as examinations of individual genres (opera, symphony, solo piano) and eras and individual composers (Bach and the High Baroque). There’s also a course (Understanding the Fundamentals …) in what is generally known as “music theory”—and all of these are accessible to the non-musician.

I’ve been a Bach enthusiast forever, and had no idea how much I was missing and not just in the music. The biographical and historical background is fascinating. Did you know that Brahms was only five feet tall and didn’t sprout facial hair until the age of 45? And when his beard did grow, he refused to shave—which explains the photographs of him with a lavish white beard. He wouldn’t even remove it for Clara Schumann, with whom he was in love. But as much as he may have loved Clara, he loved his beard more.

Then there’s Bach: universally admired by other composers, J.S. was considered in his lifetime to be inferior to his two composer sons, C.P.E. and J.C.. Further, if you are fond of Bach’s compositions for the piano, you are being fooled: the modern piano, its strings being struck with mallets and its frame made of iron, was not in common use during Bach’s lifetime. Bach had his magnificent organ repertoire and, before the piano, the harpsichord—which, like the harp, had plucked strings and a wooden frame. Even in the early 19th century, the pianos available to Beethoven had wood frames, which Beethoven’s ferocious playing would crack and shatter, routinely breaking strings.

“Piano” is short for “piano-forte”—indicating the instrument’s ability to produce both soft and loud tones, unlike the harpsichord, which had only one level of sound. These limitations in his instruments at least partially explain why Bach is so often performed in transcriptions—and not just for the piano. I’ve heard Bach played on Caribbean steel drums, the marimba, and the Japanese koto. And there are the (to my mind unnecessary) transcriptions of Bach’s organ works for orchestras of various sizes.

The performances Greenberg chooses as illustrations are uniformly illuminating, and even sound good on my ancient boom box. And the selections are often surprising, at least to this non-musician. The music that’s familiar from your classical music station is certainly represented—but much else is offered. Debussy is represented by La Mer—but also by Nuages; Schoenberg by Pierrot Lumare—which belongs on your bucket list. There are even composers I swear absolutely never get played on the radio. How about Alekssander Scriabin? Nicolas Slonskky?

These courses are, to coin a few phrases, both eye-opening and mind-bending. My life is truly enriched by them. How much I was missing!



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Reader Comments (1)

Really very happy to say, your post is very interesting to read. I never stop myself to say something about it. You’re doing a great job. Keep it up

August 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVera Stewart

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